Inspired in part by the Japanese art of fermentation, Grounded Foods aims to not just create a replacement for dairy but instead to provide a plant-based cheese ‘experience’ that looks, tastes, and smells authentic.
A husband and wife duo out of Australia is bringing a new style of plant-based cheese to market. Instead of using ingredients typically found in vegan cheese, like nuts, soy protein, and the like, they are using imperfect vegetables and a secret combination of microbes to produce two lines of cheeses. The first Grounded Foods line revolves around high-end (think-French and stinky) cheeses, and the second is aimed at a broader audience and will include more every-day products like cheese slices and cream cheeses.
He is a celebrity chef out of Melbourne known for ‘mad scientist’-like creations. She is an economist with a laser-focused eye (and heart) in the food industry. Veronica shared, “I was always trying to think about how to use Shaun’s talent in a new way,” and, as an economist working with food entrepreneurs to create a sustainable business, I always knew that restaurants were not it.” But, as most marriage counselors will tell you, it’s important to compromise.
Motivated by the turnout from several pop-ups Shaun hosted and seeing there was demand for his unique style of cooking in Los Angeles, they made a plan to move there and open a new vegetarian restaurant concept. Concurrently, Veronica was experimenting with the idea of plant-based cheeses as a side hustle that they could sell directly to grocers and consumers.
“Everyone thought we were crazy, but we saw the opportunity and decided to take it”.
Their first investor confirmed Veronica’s hunch. He said, “The restaurant was an interesting idea, but I’d buy the cheese right now.” After a lot of tears and convincing, they pivoted from opening a restaurant to producing plant-based cheese. The couple kickstarted Grounded Foods with a $40k (AUD) Mars Seeds of Change grant and then received additional $200k (USD) pre-seed funding from New York-based Big Ideas Ventures. Over 150 restaurants were asking to buy it and major supermarket chains.
“It felt like we were blowing up overnight.”
Timing is everything
They sold everything, packed up their house in Australia, and moved to New York City. Once they got their visas, they started hand-making their cheese and passing them along to local chefs.
To expand, they found a specialized plant-based and allergen-free manufacturing facility outside of Los Angeles. And then coronavirus hit, creating uncertainty in their best-laid plans. I spoke with Veronica on March 18, one day after San Francisco instituted shelter-in-place guidelines due to COVID-19. They were in the process of planning their escape from New York to Los Angeles but worried about flying and being able actually to enter the state. Eventually they made it out west, and this harrowing experience further confirmed her belief in the need for local, sustainable foods.
Despite the complications from COVID-19 and the economic downturn, especially for the restaurant industry, she did find a silver lining, “I’m really happy we haven’t gotten further at this point because a large number of our sales would have relied on the foodservice industry. Instead, we’re focusing on mail delivery services and retail.” Also, all of their suppliers in California are local and using food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Hence their sustainability goals and direct-to-consumers and retailers strategies played out well in light of this pandemic. Long-term, they plan to replicate this ethos by setting up local manufacturing facilities in other regional locations so that they can continue to work with local suppliers.
Very aggressively not vegan
When their powers combine, the couple’s wildly different backgrounds offer a skill set that’s unique for a plant-based food company. As a chef and an artist, he doesn’t want to make just another replacement for cheese but instead offer consumers a compelling experience. Consider a cheese plate at a fancy restaurant… It’s not just sliced cheeses, but a culinary journey of flavors, smells, textures, and narrative. Similarly, their second line of more common household cheeses, like Kraft slices or Velveeta, can evoke memories and are an essential part of comfort food.
Similarly, their second line of more common household cheeses can evoke memories and are an essential part of comfort food. Now more than ever, food is one of the things people are turning to capture a sense of normalcy, and with their two lines of cheeses, Grounded Foods is providing plant-based versions of everyone’s favorites. Their goal is to make something that’s so irresistable that you gravitate towards it instead of begrudgingly choosing the vegan option. The fact that it uses more sustainable ingredients, like cosmetically-challenged produce, and is allergy-free, are bonuses.
“We actually have trouble convincing people to try the cheese when we tell them it’s vegan.”
They are explicitly not promoting their cheese as “vegan” and instead looking to hit the market of people who want to include more plant-based foods in their lives but aren’t sticklers about it. For the record, neither one of them is vegan. But they saw opportunity and health benefits in going the plant-based route.
Nutrition-wise, they are replicating some of the vitamins and minerals found in dairy by using plants like cauliflower and hemp seeds. Their cheeses don’t contain common allergens, which works in their favor when it comes to shelf life and marketability. Accessible, easy-to-grow, inexpensive, and versatile were crucial considerations in their choice of ingredients. They are pricing the cheese as close as possible to the dairy-based cheese they’re replacing.
Veronica became super animated when we got on the topic of marketing. She had one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard regarding packaging, “We’ve always been pretty out there with our marketing campaigns–how far can we get without getting arrested? Our packaging will be made of light, sustainable materials, and as cheeky as can be.” They want to appeal to ‘everyday people,’ not specifically vegans.
The future of food is now
In this time of COVID-19, trucks full of food are being delayed by border crossing guidelines, Easter egg shortages are occurring, people are lining up for miles at food banks while farmers are pouring out milk and plowing vegetables under. It’s never been clearer that our food supply chain needs to be revamped. Choosing local, sustainable, direct-to-consumer food is one way to decouple your groceries from mismanaged and unreliable supply chains. To some extent, this ‘new normal’ is a perfect time for food companies like Grounded Foods to emerge.